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Stranger Things’ Shannon Purser Opens Up About Her Past With Self-Harm, Depression and Anxiety: ‘I Was So Miserable’

Shannon Purser
Shannon Purser attends the 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Expo Hall on January 29, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.Steve Granitz/

Stranger Things’ Shannon Purser came face to face with the Demogorgon in her season 1 demise. But she’s faced some pretty scary situations in real life too.

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The 19-year-old, who played Nancy’s gone-too-soon best friend Barb on the Netflix series, revealed in a pair of November 7 tweets that she battled self-harm growing up. Since then, Purser has taken to social media to add that suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety were also part of her fight, which began when the Atlanta native switched middle schools and struggled to make friends.

“I felt very isolated,” she tells Us Weekly. “I’m pretty introverted and I spend a lot of time in books, a lot of time thinking and by myself, because that’s what I enjoy to recharge. And I think that for a while my self-confidence and my tendency to want to be alone really didn’t do me any favors. So self-harm was something I could turn to that made me feel like I was doing something about all the negative feelings I had.”

It took a breakup a few years later to encourage Purser to seek professional help. “That really set off a lot of the things I’ve been holding onto — a lot of emotions and thought processes,” she explains. “At that point I was so miserable and couldn’t get out of bed, I felt so isolated and so unworthy of love that I just had to go to my parents and say, ‘I think I really need help or I’m going to continue to fall apart.’”

Shannon Purser Stranger Things
Shannon Purser as Barb on ‘Stranger Things.’ Curtis Baker/Netflix

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Through therapy and a strong religious faith, Purser was able to “really step back and analyze my feelings,” she says. Now, the young actress, who hasn’t self-harmed since she was 15, wants to work towards providing resources to those who suffer, and eliminating the stigma associated with mental illness.

“It’s very important to me that people know that depression doesn’t discriminate,” continues Purser, who appears next on the CW’s Riverdale beginning with the Thursday, February 9 episode. “A lot of people look at people who have depression and think that it’s not legitimate because they’re wealthy or it looks like everything seems to be doing fine. But it doesn’t pick and choose. It can affect anybody in the brain, no matter how perfect your life seems.”

In addition to the myriad resources Purser regularly tweets out to her followers, she recommends that anyone dealing with depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or any situation in which they feel unsafe reach out to the Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit organization that offers free 24/7 intervention via SMS messaging. But whether it’s a hotline, therapy or a trusted loved one, she insists, “The biggest thing you can do is finding somebody you trust and talking about it.”

“The most evil and insidious thing about mental illness is that it isolates us and makes us feel so different that we think no one can possibly relate,” declares Purser, who will make her big screen debut in Wish Upon, out June 30. “In the end, that can be how it destroys us if we don’t let people into our struggle. And as cliché as it sounds, if you really make the effort, you can get better and you can live not just a hard life, but a beautiful life.”

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Since revealing her own struggle in the fall, the young actress has received “an outpouring of support,” which allows her to be that voice for her fans — a role she takes very seriously. “I feel that responsibility to really be authentic with people because I think that’s what they deserve, especially in a time when it’s very easy for people in the public eye to sort of cultivate an image,” Purser, now shooting female-empowerment film Sierra Burgess is a Loser, says.

Though she admits “there are definitely days when I feel just as miserable as I did in the worst of it,” Purser realizes that self-care is an ongoing process, and her November announcement was an important step in that journey. “It was a realization for me of how far I’ve come,” she explains. “I wanted to share that — not to hold onto things that are toxic for you.”